Durham: Durham Cathedral and Town Hall

Like many people, I had not been anywhere on holiday since December 2019 (and even then, it was just visiting my family in Cleveland for Christmas, which I wouldn’t really call a holiday). With rules and requirements changing by the day back in July, Marcus and I were still uneasy about travelling outside the country, but with us both fully vaccinated, a trip within Britain certainly seemed doable. Inexplicably, we somehow decided that Durham would be the site of our first overnight trip in over a year and a half (maybe we just had Barnard Castle on the brain, which is not all that far away from Durham), and with train travel providing (what felt like to me) an unacceptable amount of exposure to other people, we set out on a six hour car journey early one morning in late July.

  

I was very much hoping to stop at Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate on the way, but we got there around lunchtime, and when we drove past in search of parking, we could see that the queue wrapped around the block, so we didn’t even bother to stop the car. However, just outside Harrogate, a sign reading “World Famous Ripley Ice Cream” caught my eye. If you want to know how to get my attention, just combine the words “world famous” and “ice cream”. Despite their claims, I had never actually heard of Ripley or their ice cream before in my life, but we stopped in this quaint village for a much needed toilet break and some of that famous ice cream from a small, but busy shop. I’m still not sure about the “world famous”, but it was very good ice cream (they even had three flavours of soft serve you could swirl together, in addition to hard ice cream) and I would definitely stop again (I regret not stopping on the way home, but we went a different route and it wasn’t on our way). Thus satiated, we headed straight up to Durham, and got there much earlier than anticipated, thanks to not stopping in Harrogate. We had been planning to see the cathedral the following morning, but as they were still open for a few hours when we arrived, we decided instead to head straight there and check into our hotel afterwards.

 

A lot of the North is very damn hilly, and Durham was no exception. We huffed and puffed up multiple flights of stairs when leaving the carpark, followed by a climb up a hill to reach the cathedral. Durham Cathedral is apparently the first “stone-roofed cathedral in Europe”. Construction started in 1093, and was mostly finished by 1133, so it is pretty damn old. It is mainly notable for being home to the prince-bishops, bishops who, due to Durham being a difficult-to-control buffer zone between England and Scotland, were given the right in 1075 to rule over the surrounding region, including the ability to raise an army, levy taxes, and mint coins. Perhaps most excitingly, the cathedral is also the place where the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert are buried, and I’d certainly heard plenty about the former in the Anglo-Saxon history classes I took as an undergrad (hands up if you initially thought his first name was “Venerable”. Yep, me too). The cathedral is still an active place of worship, and entrance is technically free, though they will hit you up hard for donations once you get inside (it’s difficult to resist when you’re forced to speak to someone at an admissions desk who practically nudges the card reader towards you).

 

Bede’s tomb is one of the first tombs you’ll see. It’s located in a little chapel that was the only place women were allowed to visit when the cathedral was a monastery (pre-Henry VIII). This chapel was hosting a “sound and light installation” when we visited that basically just made it hard to see Bede’s tomb and hard to hear the volunteer who was trying to give us information about the chapel, so I certainly wouldn’t rush there on account of it. Following that, we had to pass the stern admissions/donations lady who mentioned that there was a “tour” of the cathedral about to begin that included the chance to climb up 325 steps to the tower for only £5.50. I don’t know why we never seem to learn our lesson when it comes to climbing steps, but Marcus was obviously keen, and though I knew we would regret it, I didn’t want to deprive him of the opportunity, so I agreed.

  

And so we found ourselves climbing 325 slippery and winding stone steps. Climbing up wearing a mask was bad enough, since as soon as I started breathing heavily it sucked the mask into my mouth so that I couldn’t breathe, but I was loath to pull it down after the old man behind us removed his mask and started hacking up a lung the entire way to the top. I’m sure it was just from the exertion of climbing (and I’m not sure why he didn’t turn back after the first hundred steps when he was very obviously struggling. We were genuinely concerned he was going to drop dead, but he was with his teenage granddaughter, and she didn’t seem overly concerned, so maybe he does it all the time) but it was still not pleasant, so I ended up rushing to the top much faster than I would have liked to get away from him. The views were fine and all, but in my opinion not worth how sick I felt after practically running up the steps whilst not really being able to breathe, or worth paying £5.50. If anything, the way down was almost worse, because I have what is apparently a selective fear of heights that only really activates on stairs or ladders, and I had this horrible mental picture the whole way down of me tripping and smashing my head on 325 stone steps all the way to the bottom. It was not a fun time, but I made it without falling.

 

Now, since the woman who sold us the tickets had mentioned a “tour”, I assumed we were supposed to meet up with a tour guide at some point, but the admissions woman didn’t give us any specific instructions, nor was there anyone waiting to meet us when we came down the steps (and she was very clear that we had to climb the steps at exactly the time we climbed them, I guess to make sure traffic was one-way, so we couldn’t have missed them), so we just pressed on and explored the rest of the cathedral on our own. We did, however, encounter a tour group walking around about fifteen minutes later, so maybe that’s the one we were meant to join? Frankly, given my history with guided tours, I would have paid £5.50 NOT to have to go on it, so I wasn’t at all bothered, but you might want to ask more follow-up questions of the admissions woman than we did if you would like to go. As it was, we visited St. Cuthbert’s chapel, where I lit some candles for my grandparents (I don’t believe in it, but they did, so I do it for them) and checked out some of the tombs and weird contemporary sculpture – my favourite feature of the cathedral was the giant clock pictured a few paragraphs above this one. I did try to find the grave of Jozef Boruwlaski, who is buried here (more on him later) but had no luck.

  

The cathedral is meant to be home to a museum, currently accessible by guided tour only, but no one mentioned it to us (I only knew about it from their website), so I assume there weren’t any tours available, unless that was the tour we were meant to go on. So, we just visited the shop to get a few postcards and headed back down the hill to get the bags from our car and then back up the hill to get to our hotel. On the way, we encountered a man who rudely stuck his arm out when we apparently got too close and yelled at us to “stay away” (we do generally give people a wide berth in these Covid times, but he and his wife were walking really far apart and taking up the whole pavement, so the only way around was through. Also, he was not even wearing a mask, so maybe that should be his first step if he’s really that worried about it, instead of being a dick to strangers). This, plus the hills and the fact that the restaurant I wanted to visit was closed on a Monday (which was not mentioned on their website) and the only restaurants that were open on a Monday were super gross, so I had to eat horrible unsalted soggy chips for dinner, soured me pretty quickly on Durham, but we were spending two nights there, so I did end up seeing a bit more of the city in the form of the Town Hall.

 

The Town Hall is actually one of the reasons Durham has been on our must-visit list for a while. Way back in 2009, I wrote my master’s thesis on constructions of dwarfism in 18th century England (yeah, that served me well in the jobs market) based on the writings of William Hay, Alexander Pope, and Jozef Boruwlaski. Jozef was born with a form of dwarfism in Poland in 1739, and his small stature quickly attracted the attention of the Polish aristocracy. Various aristocrats “adopted” him (definitely not as nice as that makes it sound) and Jozef travelled with them around Europe. He eventually married and had his patronage from the King of Poland withdrawn for earning money by performing music whilst in England (the King heard exaggerated reports of how much money Jozef was making and decided he didn’t need the King’s money anymore, which wasn’t true), so, forced to find another source of income, he ended up settling in Durham, where he composed his memoirs in 1820. He died in 1837, and as I mentioned earlier, is buried in the cathedral, though good luck finding his grave. However, all was not lost, because the Town Hall is home to his violin, one of his suits, a life-size statue of him, and a handful of other personal possessions.

  

The Town Hall is currently only open Wednesday-Saturday, so we headed there on a rainy morning just before leaving Durham (and believe me, I could not wait to leave). Entrance is free, and they’re not real pushy about donations like the cathedral are. They are seemingly really proud of Jozef Boruwlaski being a Durham resident, with a ten minute introductory video on him featuring a song about him written by a local band, and of course the display case holding his suit and violin, and his statue. After spending so much time studying him years ago, it was nice to finally see some of his artefacts in person, though I do feel bad that it still felt a bit like gawking, given how much he hated being forced to exhibit himself for money when he was alive.

  

Durham Town Hall also features a cool medieval hall lined with the names and portraits of its mayors and honorary mayors (the ubiquitous Bill Bryson is one of those) and some cracking stained glass, and a council meeting room with a crest from a Durham warship hanging on the wall that features “a gruesome severed leg…a reference to the ship’s namesake Richard Witherington” who fought in a local battle against the Scots. Apparently his lower legs were chopped off and he carried on fighting on his knees. There was also a small room full of portraits by a local artist. The best one was of a cat.

  

Although small, the Town Hall was probably my favourite part of Durham. The cathedral was undeniably beautiful, but despite my very Catholic childhood, my atheist adult self feels kind of uncomfortable in religious spaces, particularly as a vicar read the Lord’s Prayer over a loudspeaker twice when we were there and encouraged everyone to join her (years of being forced to attend church meant I followed along in my head against my will, though the Catholic version goes on for quite a bit longer than the Anglican one if you include the stuff the priest says at the end). The city itself is pretty, but there’s none of the things I consider essentials, i.e. artisan bakeries or ice cream shops, or much else apart from the same crappy chains you get in every English city. At least now that I’ve seen it, I never have to go back, so that’s a plus (we did skip the castle, but I can live with that). More on the rest of our trip in the weeks to come!

10 comments

  1. I didn’t know you could drive for 6 hours and still be in Britain.😁 I enjoy cathedral visits and tower climbs, though I am not at all religious (anti in fact). What attracted you to the topic of dwarfism?

    As usual, I enjoyed your snarky comments on the people you encountered.

    1. We’re not that tiny! John O’Groats is at least twelve hours away from here.

      I’ve always been really into medical history and was looking for something medicine-adjacent when I found “Deformity,” an essay by William Hay. He was a little person with a spinal deformity who became an MP, and the essay was all about finding beauty in his deformity and exploring disability as identity, which I found fascinating since he was writing in the 18th century, which we don’t think of as being that enlightened (though the 19th century was actually much worse for people with disabilities/birth defects for more reasons than I can get into here). So I ended up running with that and the writings of Alexander Pope and Jozef Boruwlaski as a way to combine my interests in medical history and literature.

      And thanks! I’m glad someone appreciates my bitchiness.

  2. As always, this post was a treat from start to finish. Thank you for the fun!
    Okay, first things first – I’m going to need that gingham jumpsuit (pantsuit?), please and thanks.
    The Venerable Bede! Wow! His is such a big name that the thought of him being an actually person that is buried somewhere never occurred to me. Does that make sense? Until I read about the sound and light installation, I thought it was great that he’s got such a spookily-lit spot. Too bad that it’s not natural or great to experience in person.
    Your mention of the cathedral’s great age reminds me of the Martin Mull joke about visiting England and seeing a sign that the local pub would open at 1130. And someone tells him it’s not the time, it’s the year it was built. A bit of a feeble joke, but I think of it every time I read about a historic British site.
    Damn shame you couldn’t find Jozef Boruwlaski himself – but I LOVE the exhibit of his things. And I had to take an extra long look at the statue of him to appreciate his actual size.
    Okay, last comment – the Richard Witherington severed leg story is gruesome, but I have to admit I laughed out loud when I saw the hanging. That is supposed to be the leg, right?

    1. Love my gingham jumpsuit. It’s so comfy!

      I get what you mean. Bede died so long ago it’s weird that his tomb is still just kind of there. But I forgot to mention the interesting fact that after the Danes invaded Lindisfarne, monks carried St. Cuthbert’s body around for seven years until they could find a church to stick it in. I assume they weren’t literally carrying it around that whole time in some kind of endless corpse relay, but still.

      That is supposed to be his leg! It’s awfully cute for a severed leg.

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